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Going above and beyond for strangers

Someone much smarter than I once said: "You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give."

I thought about that during a recent trip I took down south to Mississippi and Louisiana. I was traveling to shoot a Campbell Brown story that will likely air Tuesday on the anniversary of Katrina slamming into the Gulf Coast.

The story is a lovely one. I think it's our job, if even occasionally, to tell a story that describes the petals of Katrina and not just the thorns. God knows the thorns are plentiful and obvious and important. We won't learn how to not repeat the inexcusable mistakes of the disaster without the thorns, but it can't hurt to be reminded of the generosity of the angels who walk among us -- the petals. In this case, the petals are a few volunteers in Erie, Pa., who wanted to know what they could do to help.

They traveled down to Mississippi and looked around. They found an errant photograph that had been lost in the storm. Probably just a picture of an old black lab or a father and son goofing around on a Saturday afternoon. Then they found another. And another. Some were covered by dirt and debris. Some were damaged. Some were partially hidden. Some had nails sticking out of them. Some probably had blood on them. Sweat and tears, too.

So the volunteers decided to do something about those lost images, and created the Picture Project. They gathered what they could. They asked around for help. They got sponsors to set up drop boxes. They went back home, far away to Pennsylvania, and slowly, thousands and thousands of photos -- literally, lost moments in people's lives -- began showing up.

The volunteers cleaned them. They organized them. And then they began the extraordinary work of trying to reunite these photos with the traumatized victims of Katrina who had lost them.

I read somewhere once that "being a man or a woman is a matter of birth. Being a man or a woman who makes a difference is a matter of choice."

Nobody made these Erie residents do what they did. And what they did was not simple. They are not independently wealthy. They are not retired. They work for the local government. Sue Weber, Dennis Heintz and Karla Anderson spent their own money, asked their bosses for time off, put the priorities of their own families, their own children, their own friends, their own important lives on hold -- for strangers.

Some of the stories Sue, Dennis and Karla came across were truly wrenching. One involved a family who not only lost their home and everything in it, but they lost their son, too.

The Rickmans had two kids with a rare ailment called Batten Disease. The trauma of the storm sped up the death of one son. And the other is, well, doing his best -- with the care of loving parents. The point is this: Imagine you've lost your home, the contents in it, you've lost your son, and on top of it, you've lost every photographic memory of that beautiful living thing? Unimaginable, really.

Then imagine you happen to be surfing the Web, and a picture of your boy with his dad next to a train -- a trip that had been a dream-come-true for father and son -- pops up on your screen. Well, if you're Carol Rickman of Biloxi, you don't know whether to laugh or to cry. So, you do both. You whoop and you holler, too.

For the Rickman family, the Picture Project literally took something that was lost, forever, and brought it back again. Carol Rickman may not have her boy's life back, but by gosh, she's got the memory of it. The very color of the shirt he was wearing. The smile on his face. The way his hair was parted just so. That was gone forever. But not anymore.

This is a dramatic example, because a life was lost. But what the Picture Project does is reunite families with much smaller moments that mean just as much to those who thought they'd lost them forever. A college graduation. A hug before going off to war. A high-five after an LSU victory. The way a mom's hand sat atop her daughter's head on a lazy afternoon -- one a long time ago, before Katrina blew away that hammock. Forever.

And why do people volunteer -- for complete strangers, no less? Its been said that volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections every four years, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in. Why do we do it? I don't know. But after spending some time in Biloxi and New Orleans, and with these folks from Erie -- I now know that's the kind of community I want to grow old in.

My grandmother couldn't have said it better herself.

Editor's Note: Campbell Brown's piece will air on Tuesday's Nightly News broadcast.